How to make college admissions fairer

Ninety colleges are developing a way for students seeking admission to showcase their best work.

Story highlights

  • The college application process is a numbers game of GPAs and tests, say Ted Dintersmith and Sir Ken Robinson
  • A new digital resource is designed to give all students a chance to showcase their best work, they say

Ted Dintersmith is a former venture capitalist and executive producer of the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed" and is leading a campaign to encourage schools to support innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @dintersmith. Sir Ken Robinson is an expert on creativity, innovation and human resources and an author. He was professor of arts education at the University of Warwick and is now a professor emeritus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)If you follow policy chatter, the future of U.S. K-12 education centers on federal policy (ESSA, RTTT, NCLB, ESEA), the Common Core, charter schools and school choice.

But it may be an unheralded initiative that profoundly impacts the future of our schools and kids.
    Ninety diverse and respected colleges will soon offer a suite of resources to help students with the college admissions process, including an innovative application option. This Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success has the potential to evoke more purposeful learning in our schools and expand the scope of what it means to be "college-ready." And it comes not a school day too soon.
    Ted Dintersmith
    Sir Ken Robinson
    Many obsolete features of our education system urgently need transforming. For decades, the United States has doggedly pursued a testing and accountability strategy, with little to show for it. Too often we micromanage our demoralized teachers, driving many of the best from the profession. We push students to jump through hoops, diminishing creativity and deeper learning.
    There's a growing consensus that the system needs wholesale reimagination. But when it comes to innovation in K-12 schools, one question stops change dead in its tracks: "How will this affect getting into college?"
    High school students and their surrounding adults will tell you that the college application process is a numbers game -- GPA, SATs, ACTs , APs and SAT subject tests, buttressed by an overwhelming show of extracurricular force. These data, though, do little to convey a student's passions, authentic accomplishments, creativity, trajectory and potential.
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    Even the essays, which should afford opportunities for differentiation, often reflect the heavy hand of adults trying to make a student irresistible to colleges. And while experienced admissions officers are pretty good at detecting those inauthentic "perfect" applications, this reality loses out to the widespread perception that numbers are what matters. This plays out in varying harmful ways for kids across America.
    At the risk of oversimplifying, well-off parents make college a child-rearing priority as early as preschool. Get your kids into the "best" K-12 schools (reflected by test scores and college placement). Push kids in pursuits perceived to appeal to colleges. Invest in tutors and college counselors. Make high grades an imperative, intervening with teachers to secure that A. Pack schedules with AP classes to show a craving for academic "rigor." And tack on a long list of community service miniprojects to perfect the resume.
    Again risking oversimplification, poor kids often grow up without college on their radar screens. No one pushes them to broaden vocabulary, turbocharge reading rates and master low-level math procedures. Consequently, they don't ace tests like the SAT (dubbed the "Student Affluence Test" by The Wall Street Journal). Swamped teachers and guidance counselors don't have time to advise them fully on college options or write persuasive letters of recommendation. Yet despite these challenges, many of these kids do amazing things -- in or out of school -- that reflect talent, resourcefulness, determination and the potential to change the world.
    While circumstances vary, all high school kids have one thing in common: During years that shape their character and values, they are often pushed to excel on measures they don't believe in. Some rise to this challenge and produce stellar resumes, while sacrificing intrinsic motivation, curiosity, creativity and sense of purpose. Far too many others fall short on standardized tests and the game of school, and get a drumbeat of feedback about their life-limiting lack of "proficiency."
    Imagine a different K-12 universe. One where students create and carry out bold initiatives, like a science experiment, a fund-raiser to help a classmate who lost a parent in a drive-by shooting, or a novel. Where kids are encouraged to take intellectual risks and learn to handle setbacks and failures. Where they want to come to school, knowing it will help them acquire the content, skills and character traits they value. Where education's mission isn't ranking and weeding out kids, but helping every child develop into a young adult with the purpose and skills to make his or her world better.
    At first blush, the Coalition for Access is modest in scope. It includes a digital locker, a collaboration platform and an application portal. Digital lockers enable students to archive accomplishments. The collaboration platform provides students with resources (like guidance counselors, adult mentors, or alums of the colleges they're interested in) to navigate the admissions process -- particularly valuable in underresourced schools.
    The key to the initiative's long-term impact, though, is its application portal. This portal enables, but as yet doesn't require, participating colleges to review digital portfolios reflecting an applicant's talent, progress, achievement, creativity and passion.
    When it comes to school, change is hard. Very hard. So it's not surprising that critics are already attacking this initiative -- even though it doesn't replace or modify anything that's in place today.
    But these criticisms ring hollow, given that well-off families already hold overwhelming advantages. Moreover, an option that challenges applicants to demonstrate essential skills -- like critical analysis, creativity, and compelling communication -- hardly seems like a fatal flaw, and may surprise many in how it levels the playing field.
    A more substantive concern is that some participating colleges will make only modest commitments to this coalition, using it more as a way to deflect the mounting criticism of today's flawed college admissions process. For the sake of our youth, we urge all participating colleges to embrace the full potential of the application portal, and to deploy resources creatively (added staff, smart sampling techniques, short Skype interviews, alumni assistance) to consider as many 21st-century applications as they receive.
    Teenagers are complicated, and no application process will be perfect. Time will tell how much the Coalition for Access elevates high school experiences and levels the playing field.
    But here's what's encouraging: Students in high school who choose to bring an authentic sense of purpose to ambitious initiatives, instead of just playing the game of school, will know that a growing number of colleges are willing to evaluate their body of work. We applaud these colleges for aspiring to a world that better serves our kids and their futures.